“There is no selfie stick long enough!” reads the advisory about harbor seals. “Getting too close to a wild animal puts you — and the animal — at risk.”
Governmental agencies have previously issued warnings against getting too close and snapping selfies with wild animals. Yellowstone National Park, for instance, has launched many public campaigns about getting too close to bison. People have been seriously injured while taking selfies with the animals, and last month a mother rejected her baby bison because of human interference. The park had to euthanize the calf.
The problem isn’t going away. Officials have noted a steady, dramatic rise in cases of stranded harbor seals because of human harassment in NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region, which stretches from Maine to Virginia.
In 2015, there were 53 such harassment cases in the region involving harbor seals. That’s nearly double from just two years prior, when humans harassed 28 seals, leading to the animals being stranded.
“We are starting to see the increase of harassment cases that does involve sometimes people taking pictures or holding them up to get photos,” said Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding program coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region.
It’s illegal to harass wild marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also outlaws the hunting, capturing and feeding of marine mammals.
Harbor seals, which also can be found on the west coast of the United States, aren’t the only species that face the threat of human interference. NOAA has had similar issues with dolphins and whales.
Sometimes individual animal interference stories attract international attention, particularly when they involve threatened species. A baby dolphin belonging to an endangered species died earlier this year after swimmers in Argentina took the creature out of the water and passed it around a beach for selfies.
Harbor seal pups on Maine and New Hampshire beaches face the threat of humans during pupping season, which starts in mid-May through July. Mother seals out foraging can leave pups by themselves for up to 24 hours.
“Generally, we do think the mom can come back several times throughout the day to check on the pup and to nurse,” Garron said. “If people are around, that could interfere with her coming back on the beach and reuniting with the pup. She sees people as a threat.”
Orphaned baby seals could face a grim future if they aren’t rescued. “Those pups are not going to survive in the wild,” Garron said.
Some people also move pups, and then their mothers can’t find them, said Sarah Wilkin of NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response programs. Touching a pup could also cause later rejection.
“Even if the interaction was short and not very disruptive, it could have lasting impacts on the animal,” she said.
While the rise of smartphones and selfies could be playing a role in the rise of harassment cases, humans have longed interfered with wildlife — often as a misguided attempt to help a creature.
In Yellowstone, tourists put a baby bison into their car because they thought it looked cold, a decision that proved fatal for the calf.
For harbor seal pups, people may see a pup by itself and assume it has been abandoned by its mother. Often, the mother is just away, foraging.
“There have always been people who observed a seal pup on the beach and thought, well-intentioned, they needed to do something and help it,” Wilkin said.
NOAA advises people to keep themselves and their pets at least 150 feet away from seals. And if you think a harbor seal pup has indeed been abandoned by its mother, you can call NOAA’s hotline to report a possible stranded animal.
And just as with bison, getting too close to seals can have dire consequences. Adult seals have powerful jaws.
“We have received reports of a number of injuries to humans as a result of getting too close to an animal during a quick photo op,” NOAA said in an advisory. “When you get too close to a wild animal, you risk stressing or threatening it, and stressed animals are much more likely to act unpredictably.”